Cave Safety

Caves can be cold, dark, and damp places. They can be bone dry, muddy, or even completely filled with water. Some caves offer easy exploration, others tight crawls, or dangerous and challenging climbs. So why are we, and presumably you, drawn underground?

People cave for many different reasons. For some people, caving is a sport and a test of their physical and mental condition. For others, caving is more of a spiritual experience. Some people enjoy caves for their scientific value, others strive to capture their beauty with photographs or video. There are those who show their love for caves by surveying, measuring and recording their every dimension and feature, while for others it is the exploration that draws them underground.

Caving can be dangerous, though. Even something as simple as losing your light can result in your death, or at the very least days lost underground waiting for rescue. Climbing underground and rope work is specialized and dangerous, and mistakes can easily be fatal. If you remember nothing else, remember these eight rules.

  1. Always have three sources of light. Your "primary" light source should be a head lamp, mounted on a helmet. Your second light can be a regular flashlight, but you should also attach it to the side of your helmet if at all possible. The third source can be matches, a cigarette lighter, "glow sticks," candles, or another flashlight. Don't forget extra batteries and bulbs! If you lose your light, you can lose your life.
  2. Always wear a helmet. Even a cheap $10 construction helmet is better than nothing. It's not even falling rocks you need to worry about so much as smacking your head. You get a concussion, you go into shock, hypothermia, and then die.
  3. Always bring the right equipment. Good lug soled boots can ensure safe footing. Your footwear should have good ankle support! A twisted or sprained ankle is a serious emergency underground! A first aid kit is a must when help can be hours (or sometimes days) away! Long pants and a warm shirt are a must in potentially cold caves. Gloves will save your hands. Your vertical equipment should be of good quality and well maintained.
  4. Never cave alone. What happens if you trip and break your leg? What happens if you knock yourself unconcious? If you cave alone, you die alone.
  5. Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. If your group gets lost, stuck, injured, or somehow lose your lights, how long will it take someone to find you if noone knows where you are? How long will it take your friends or loved ones to realize you're not coming back? Eight hours? Twenty-four hours? Two days? A week?
  6. Never attempt climbing a pit without proper training. "Knotted ropes" and the "hand-over-hand" technique don't work for climbs over a few feet. Clothesline, cotton rope, twine, or other dubious ropes will kill you. There are special climbing and caving ropes which are designed to withstand the rigors and special problems in caving. There is special equipment which allows you to safely get down your rope, and back up again. This equipment and these techniques take special training to use safely.
  7. Never cave while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Even if you aren't tripping over your feet, drugs and alcohol will impair your judgement, possibly causing you to damage formations, trip and injure yourself, dramatically increase the chances of hypothermia, or make other fatal mistakes. Think twice about caving if you're not feeling well or using medications.
  8. You are responsible for your own safety. There are no phones underground, and even if there were, rescue teams can take too long to reach you. Even with immediate response, the nearest rescue team is likely 6-8 hours away, or more. Learn self-rescue techniques, and make sure you and the members of your group know first aid. Watching a friend die because you don't know how to help is a life-altering event.

Are you an open water diver? Do you want to dive in an underwater cave? If you do, you must get proper training in cave diving. It doesn't matter if you're an expert open water diver. If you dive in a cave without proper training as a cave diver you will die. For more information on cave diving, visit the NSS Cave Diving Section.

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